Purity of the Heart Is to Follow One Thing



SØREN KIERKEGAARD WAS AN EARNEST, brilliant, difficult, vituperative, sensitive, sickly emo brat whose statue in the Valhalla of Sad Young Literary Men is surely the size of a Bamiyan Buddha. He was a Christian whose devoutness was so idiosyncratic as to be functionally indistinct from heresy; who lived large on family money until the money ran out and then died so promptly that you’d almost think he planned the photo finish; who tried and failed to save Christianity from itself, but succeeded (without really trying) in founding “a new philosophical style, rooted in the inward drama of being human.” That quote is Clare Carlisle’s, from her biography Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard; the “new philosophical style” was existentialism.

Kierkegaard wrote often of love, even as his work had its origins in grief. By 1834, when he turned twenty-one, he had lost his mother and five of his six siblings. He was struggling with the question of how to reconcile his interest in Romantic literature (and concomitant rejection of Hegel and Descartes) with his attraction to Christian faith. Shortly thereafter, he began to keep a journal: “As I stood there alone and forsaken and the brute force of the sea and the battle of the elements reminded me of my nothingness, and on the other hand the sure flight of the birds reminded me of Christ’s words: ‘Not a sparrow will fall to the earth without your heavenly Father’s will,’ I felt at one and the same time how great and insignificant I am.”

In an 1835 entry that Carlisle describes as “not just a personal aspiration, but a philosophical manifesto,” he wrote, “The crucial thing is to find a truth that is true for me.” One can understand—even applaud—Kierkegaard’s resistance to the totalizing tendencies of rationalism and dialectics while also acknowledging how narcissistic and naive he sounds. But let’s give credit where it’s due. It wasn’t that Kierkegaard believed Hegel and Descartes were entirely wrongheaded; he simply saw that there was always a remainder or excess for which their systems could not account. For Kierkegaard, this excess was subjectivity itself. He believed that each of us has—each of us is—a unique perceptive consciousness, charged with observing the world, interpreting what it sees, and ultimately acting on what it believes.

Here’s Carlisle again: “His sense that divine governance directed his authorship was difficult to distinguish from his need to write to assuage his deep anxiety.”

In the margin of my galley: “LOL.”

Sketches of Søren Kierkegaard, ca. 1870. Wilhelm Marstrand/Royal Danish Library
Sketches of Søren Kierkegaard, ca. 1870. Wilhelm Marstrand/Royal Danish Library

“A LOVE AFFAIR is always an instructive theme regarding what it means to exist,” Kierkegaard wrote in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846). It’s a hell of an assertion coming from a guy who unilaterally ended an engagement with a woman he’d courted for years and then proceeded to obsess about the decision—always ultimately reaffirming it—for the rest of his life. Carlisle quotes this line in the first sentence of the preface to her biography and apparently takes it at face value. I confess I found myself wondering how he could have made such a grandiose claim on the strength of such narrow and abortive experience. I also wondered whether or to what degree he “meant” what he’d written.

It’s worth recalling that Kierkegaard’s doctoral thesis was called The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, and that much of his work was written from a position of Socratic irony, attributed to pseudonyms whose views did not correspond with his own. Either/Or, which electrified Copenhagen upon its publication in 1843, is divided into two volumes of some three hundred pages apiece. Volume One presents itself as “The Papers of A.” A is an aesthete whose works include collections of aphorisms and an essay on Mozart. The papers also contain the scandalous Seducer’s Diary, attributed not to A but to “Johannes the Seducer”; the implication is that A read the book rather than that he wrote it, and we can only speculate as to what he thought of it. A short autobiographical novel in the tradition of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, The Seducer’s Diary tells a fictionalized version of Kierkegaard’s courtship of Regine Olsen, including punishing details about how he manipulated her, abused her trust, and eventually broke their engagement. John Updike once described the novel as a “feverishly intellectual attempt to reconstruct an erotic failure as a pedagogic success, a wound masked as a boast.” (That last part seems to me an apt description of Kierkegaard’s work in general.) Volume Two of Either/Or contains another set of papers, these attributed to B. He writes sparring letters to his friend A; B refutes A’s aesthetic claims, scolds him for his misbehaviors, and attempts to teach him about ethics and faith. The whole book is attributed to one “Victor Eremita” (i.e., “victorious hermit”), who claims to have discovered these sets of papers and merely arranged them for publication. Either/Or, which is subtitled A Fragment of Life, blurs the lines between philosophy and criticism as well as between fiction and nonfiction. In its undecidability, its excess, and its slippery play of subjectivities, it anticipates Moby-Dick and modernism, or Pessoa and Borges, as much as it does Sartre and Camus or Paul Tillich and Karl Barth.

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR AN INTRODUCTION TO KIERKEGAARD’S WORK, you’d do better to look elsewhere than Philosopher of the Heart. Happily, you can stay within Clare Carlisle’s bibliography, as she is also the author of Kierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. In case you need it to get through this book review, here’s some 101.

Basically, Kierkegaard believed there were three spheres of existence. First there was the aesthetic, or superficial; then there was the ethical, in which values inform behavior; and finally there was the religious, in which the leap of faith supersedes all other considerations. One does not necessarily progress from one sphere to the next (that would be too Hegelian), and it is possible to occupy multiple spheres at once, but there is a clear sense of hierarchy among them. To live a purely aesthetic life is for Kierkegaard a terrible tragedy. The argument at the core of The Sickness unto Death (1849) is that despair is a gift insofar as it awakens us to the misery of aesthetic existence, which in turn makes it possible to consider approaching the other spheres.

For most, the ethical and aesthetic spheres are plenty, but the religious sphere is where the real action is. Kierkegaard didn’t think many people were capable of approaching the religious sphere, much less gaining entry to it, and he thought it was better that the unprepared not make the attempt at all. The religious sphere is where you come to understand Christianity as pure “inwardness,” spend quality time “alone with the Pattern” (i.e., in contemplation of Christ’s example), and engage in the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” which means that—as with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac—when God tells you to do something, you do it, even if you think it is wrong and, crucially, even if what you’re doing violates God’s own laws as you understand them. Abraham, in Kierkegaard’s view, is a man of faith not because he trusts that God will spare Isaac but rather because he is willing to commit the murder and then to be condemned for it in order that God’s will can be done while the letter of His law remains unchanged.

Kierkegaard understands how ridiculous this sounds. He argues that Christianity’s central tenets—virgin birth, resurrection, etc.—are absurd on purpose, deliberately placed “stumbling blocks” intended to keep all but the most committed from taking the leap of faith. If one insists that faith supersedes both reason and ethics, faith becomes the ultimate act of subjectivity. The leap of faith is therefore the most consequential (and perhaps the least explicable) action a person can take. Kierkegaard’s break with Regine was one version of taking the leap, because he knew that the comforts and responsibilities of a bourgeois marriage would prevent him from pursuing what he came to call his “authorship.” The second leap of faith was the writing and publication of the works themselves, which led to much public ridicule and eventually to open rebellion against the Danish Lutheran Church.

One should always be cautious when quibbling with genius, but it seems to me that subjectivity itself is, beyond a certain point, unethical. One can grant Kierkegaard the premise of his spheres but reject his ranking of them, or the urge to rank them at all. Why not choose to view them as coequal and interdependent? To be saved from the unexamined life is a miracle, sure, but to pursue self-examination to the point where you lose sight of the value—or the reality—of the lives of others seems to me like a loss that outweighs whatever you’ve gained.

PHILOSOPHER OF THE HEART is novelistic in its approach. Much of it is narrated in the present tense, set at crucial moments in Kierkegaard’s life, which tend to be just before or after his major publications. Part One, “May 1843: Return Journey,” finds him traveling by rail, stagecoach, and steamship from Berlin home to Copenhagen. Either/Or has been out for a few months already, and before the year is through he will publish Fear and Trembling and Repetition, as well as three installments of the Upbuilding Discourses. Carlisle is capable of sketching a vivid picture: “As the sun sets over the Baltic late in the evening the vast sky turns pink and blue and gold. Kierkegaard knows that countless stars hide in this last dance of daylight, waiting for darkness to fall. . . . He should try to get some rest.”

If the main thing that stands out to you about the quote above is that Carlisle has a tendency to make liberal use of free indirect style, attributing to her subject thoughts and observations that are almost certainly of her own invention, then this might not be the book for you. Philosopher of the Heart is intended as “a Kierkegaardian biography of Kierkegaard,” and Carlisle is largely successful on these peculiar terms, though such an approach is necessarily blinkered in its focus and bound to exclude readers not already conversant in Kierkegaard’s work. I doubt that Philosopher of the Heart will win any new converts, but those already captivated by Kierkegaard are likely to have their passion reignited. I was moved to revisit many of my old ideas about his work, as well as the works themselves, and in some cases came away with a revised and more sophisticated understanding of his thinking. I learned some things about his life that I hadn’t known before, and was reminded at times of other partisan literary biographies I’ve enjoyed, such as Edna O’Brien’s Byron in Love and William Gass’s Reading Rilke.

But with no offense intended to Carlisle, what these other books have in common (and Philosopher of the Heart lacks) are authors who have as much drawing power as their subjects. If you want to know Rilke’s life story, you read Wolfgang Leppmann’s biography; if you want to know what William Gass thinks about the relative merits of a dozen translations of the Duino Elegies—or if you’re just a Gass fan—you pick up Reading Rilke. Moreover, Philosopher of the Heart lacks the self-awareness that these other books possess. Edna O’Brien knows there’s something a little silly about devoting a whole book to a pompous fuckboy like Byron, but she also knows that’s part of the fun. Carlisle, on the other hand, is a dutiful disciple who always keeps a straight face. In her preface, she admits that “while living in uncomfortably close proximity to Kierkegaard, I have sometimes found myself disliking him—a painful feeling, similar to the pain of finding fault with a loved one.” It’s easy to sympathize with her here: Who among us doesn’t have a problematic fave? But her approach “as a Kierkegaardian biographer” is “to resist the urge to impose or invite these judgments.” I sometimes wished she’d let herself succumb.

To a modern reader (and, probably, to women of all eras), Kierkegaard’s behavior toward Regine Olsen—first breaking the engagement, then writing about it, then continuing to make claims on her attention and render judgments about her life—will register as hypocritical, obnoxious, creepy, and all too familiar. It would have been nice to see this more fully acknowledged, or dealt with on any terms other than Kierkegaard’s own, which are as hopelessly convoluted as they are self-serving. A truly Kierkegaardian biography would have found some way to give Regine a voice. Moreover, it would have employed more of Kierkegaard’s own formal approaches: pseudonymous authors possessing plausible psychologies in open conflict with each other; essays and fictions presented as found texts; layers of diegesis and vortices of Socratic irony. Maybe a truly Kierkegaardian biography of Kierkegaard could only ever be a novel.

Which reminds me that I almost forgot to mention the source for this admirable book’s silly title. It was an offhand remark made by Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish society writer who visited Copenhagen in 1849 to report on Danish culture. Kierkegaard refused to meet with her, but she heard a lot about him, particularly that his work was popular with women. This was so, she theorized, because he philosophized from the heart, and women are always excited to find a man who’s in touch with his feelings.

Justin Taylor is the author of the memoir Running with the Ghost, which will be published by Random House in July.